Delivered from the scholarly clique

The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Volume VII (Modernism and the New Criticism)
April 19, 2002

Most potential readers of this volume, after noting that modernism is not modern and "new criticism" is not new, and that so far they are equal, will move on to assume that "modernism" is the "sexier" term here. But in the form of the criticism it produced, it does not necessarily run out as winner. Edward Said paid tribute to the new criticism for delivering literature from an esoteric fate as a roped-off area for scholarly cliques.

The intellectual movements are squared up to each other here according to the usual "star system": Eliot, Pound, Stein, Woolf, Lewis and Yeats confront new-critical I. A. Richards, William Empson, Richard Blackmur, Kenneth Burke and Yvor Winters. Each side offers composite intellectual motions on "the Harlem renaissance" and "poet-critics", while flanking survey chapters provide detailed accounts of social contexts, institutional morphologies and what critic Lionel Trilling called "the hum and buzz of cultural implication", though in doing so they traverse some unattractive intellectual territory.

The stimulating introduction attacks unnuanced differentiations of modernist and avant-garde culture by Peter Burger and Andreas Huyssen but temporarily confounds the criticism of modernist writers and the artistic practice of modernism: it is the latter that anticipates and prompts much of the subsequent confident theorising, over which the editors wring their hands a little too vigorously.

The Eliot essay by Louis Menand implicitly addresses a point made by Valentine Cunningham about the decline of Eliot's reputation. Eliot, always "too much discussed, too much explained", was astonishingly successful in terms of his cultural influence. He seemed at one time to offer a programme, almost a package, but seems now to cue a series of meditations on his paradoxicality as a linguistic innovator in a poetry plumped up with others' phrasings, a religionist steeped in scepticism, a philosopher keen to disavow his métier , a Yankee Englishman, modernist fogey and pin-striped literary revolutionary.

Eliot learnt much from his mentor Pound, but it seems to have been Pound who needed to learn from Eliot about how to "handle" himself. A. Walton Litz and Lawrence Rainey's essay clearly demonstrates how far Pound was originally from progressive modernity as he lived and breathed the genteel salon atmospheres of Queen Anne's Gate.

Maria DiBattistia well describes the engaging modesty of Woolf's claims for herself as critic with a sense of the necessary contribution of ancillary and peripheral figures to the all too "celebby" world of literature, while Lucy McDiarmid discusses Yeats in terms of his attempts to cope with his Hibernian version of what Keats called the hateful siege of contraries. Perhaps the trickiest of these was Annie Horniman's request that the Abbey Theatre plays she funded should not have politics, a ticklish situation for one committed to artistic blueprints for a new nation.

Paul H. Fry's subject, I. A. Richards, saddled himself with the task of turning scholar gypsies with stock responses into white-coated critical boffins and later attempted to explain himself in Basic English as he shuttled between qualified utilitarianism and imitations of Plato, occasionally with ancient Chinese mediators. All slightly suspect, but Fry perhaps is a little too hard on his subject.

Sustaining the idea of criticism as an oppositional practice, R. P. Blackmur was seized by Eliot's notion that Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it and hastened to violate Thomas Hardy with this idea, apparently unaware that Hardy's "tenderised" version of poetic Darwinism was already more "oppositional" than Eliot's own. Michael Wood is perceptive here, as he is on Empson. As a 24-year-old undergraduate, Empson produced a masterpiece, "Seven types of ambiguity", for his teacher, Richards. It is an apogee of "close reading" that never attempts to close the reader off from history.

Strong-minded Winters, taken in hand here by Donald Davie, found a talent to abuse some forms of modernism, but our sense of the cogency of his conclusions is diminished by some of his actual enthusiasms.

F. R. Leavis was so influential as to clone himself in the form of epigones who would later serve to discredit him. Michael Bell's essay mounts a comparison with Heidegger that would not necessarily get him out of trouble, and the idea itself is heckled by Wittgenstein's tribute to Leavis's "character" when contrasted with Sartre's description of Heidegger's "(no-)character".

Trilling is one of an impressive array of New York intellectuals of liberal persuasion, but, as Harvey Teres points out, braided with a refined Anglophilia traceable to his London-born mother. Indeed, his only "proper" full-length books were on Arnold and E. M. Forster. He was good at excoriating American novelists who appeared to postulate reality as a material donnée .

Kenneth Burke's writing straddled an extraordinary range of interests. As an early interdisciplinarian, he was said by Frank Lentricchia to be examining the practices of hegemony, despite the fact that he, unlike the Greeks and Gramsci, did not have a word for it, and his smudging of the lines of high and low cultures makes him anticipatory postmodernist of sorts.

Gertrude Stein, awarded to Steven Meyer, was named by William James as the most brilliant of his female students, collector of art and anecdote, sometimes seems embarked on a programme announced by Wallace Stevens to be she "who of repetition most is master", and perhaps best remembered in her ventriloquising of live-in companion Alice B. Toklas.

This informative volume shows that both critical movements may complement "theory" in letting texts speak without an imperious (and repetitious) airing or imposition of the volume's own preoccupations.

Edward Neill teaches literature at Middlesex University.

The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Volume VII (Modernism and the New Criticism)

Editor - A. Walton Litz, Louis Menand and Lawrence Rainey
ISBN - 0 521 30012 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 535

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